As we saw in the last installment of this series, When is a Horse a Horse?, horse species today appear to represent divergent genetic units that naturally do not interbreed on a regular basis. Therefore each of these lineages of horses is acting like a species as defined by the biological species concept. This raises the obvious question: are each of these identifiable horse species based on morphology (the way they look) and their genetic differences the result of special fiat creation or the result of a process of speciation from a common ancestor? It may surprise you to learn that secular evolutionists, evolutionary creationists, intelligent design advocates, and most young earth creationists and whatever combination that I have left out, have the same answer: all horse “species” today are the descents from a common ancestor that lived sometime in the past. To put this more bluntly, all agree that if we went back in time we would eventually come to a point where there were no clear differences between horses, donkey’s and zebras but rather a study of these animals at this time would have suggested they are all the same species as we define species today. Of course what would not be necessary shared would be views of what that individual or population of animals would have looked like, how far back in time we would have to go to find that ancestral “species,” the rate of evolution necessary to form the present species, the mechanisms involved in those changes including the role of mutation and natural selection, and etc..
To illustrate, let us now take a look at what young earth creationists have in mind when they say that all of today’s horse species are derived from a common ancestral stock. A few years ago several young earth creationists including Todd Wood, a leading figure in framing the creationist concept of “baramins,” attempted to apply a set of criteria for understanding the limits of the horse baramin, which is a way of saying finding the limit of a horse created kind (see references below). For our purposes here we can say that he was asking; when is a horse a horse? As a result of their analysis of modern equine species and the fossil record he and his co-authors came to the conclusion that undoubtedly all living equines originated from a pair of common ancestors but more controversially, at least among the creation science community, they suggested that it may be possible that one of the much smaller multiple-toed horses from the fossil record represents the form of the horse kind that Noah took on the ark and from which all fossil and living horse species have “evolved.” In effect what they are suggesting is that the horse series observed in the fossil record does, in fact, represent a real set of ancestral horse species. On Wood’s blog he puts it this way in a post entitled The Horse Series and Creationism: “The evolutionists got that one right, and we creationists appear to have gotten it wrong.”
Before you scold me for quote mining to make my point, let me clarify what I believe that Wood intended. Wood is only referring to the actual existence of horse-like fossils, their relative order and that all these fossils and living horse species have a common ancestor. Wood very much believes in special creation of the original horse kind and does not believe that secular evolutionary theories (natural selection, genetic drift and mutation) can fully explain how these horses evolved from that original horse kind to the many species and fossil species we know of today. I don’t have time here to explore his idea of altruistic genetic elements (AGEing process) at this time but will explore his and other creationists’ views of how evolution happened within kinds in a later post. However, I must give Wood a huge amount of credit for recognizing the validity of the fossil record, realizing that is must represent a post-flood series within the young earth creationists worldviews, and seeing the implications for the question of the origins of horses.
You will not be surprised to hear that not all within the creationist community are willing to accept that this standard example of macro-evolutionary evidence might actually be accurate given it has been labeled as being a lie for so long. At least two separate articles have been penned by creationists (see references below) about horses. In one, Mats Molen, responds to Wood’s assessment of horse evolution and takes the position that there are at least two “evolutionary gaps” in the series and thus there must be at least three created kinds rather than all having evolved from one to another. However, with respect to seven living species of horses he believes they are all one kind and thus derived from an ancestral horse kind. Interestingly, it is the question of what makes a “gap” between two things that constitutes the question at hand here: what makes a horse a horse? Of course this author gives us virtually no criteria for determining what a “gap” is between kinds or how we would recognize it.
Back in the day when a “species” was equal to a “kind” in most creationists minds, gaps where a bit easier to define. Every species was specially created, preserved on the Ark and then was represented in the fauna today with only minor micro-evolutionary changes. But today, most creation scientists are more apt to see species as just pools of genetically similar individuals that are actually part of a much larger unit called a kind. But these kinds are rather more difficult to define than are species. Boundaries between kinds can be fuzzy and they get much fuzzier when the fossil record is included. In the case of horses, the fossil record appears to contain a gradation of animals from small canine-sized multi-toed broad-leaved plant herbivores to the large grass-grazing zebras and horses of today.
The other author, Jonathan Sarfati, is famous for his creative reinterpretations of evolution and the fossil record. His article written in 1999 predates Wood’s assessment but I see no indication that he has changed his mind. He does not claim outright that the 25 or more genera of living and fossil “horses” are not one created kind but he blasts the traditional evolution view of modern horses evolving from a small multi-toed ancestor and rather believes that all the fossils species were all contemporaries of each other and thus could not represent a series of evolutionary steps. He appears to accept that all fossil horses (all those shown in the figure above) are actually just natural variants within a horse kind but for him this doesn’t constitute any form of evolution?! How does he do that?
From Sarfati’s article The non-evolution of the horse we find this explanation:
An important part of the biblical creation model is that different kinds of creatures were created with lots of genetic information. Natural selection can sort out this pre-existing genetic information, by eliminating creatures not suited to a particular environment… Also, much of this (created) genetic information may have been latent (hidden, i.e. the features coded for are not expressed in the offspring) in the original created kinds. They also had other controlling or regulatory genes that switch other genes ‘on’ or ‘off.’ That is, they control whether or not the information in a gene will be decoded, so the trait will be expressed in the creature. This would enable very rapid and ‘jumpy’ changes, which are still changes involving already created information, not generation of new information.
Applying these principles to the horse, the genetic information coding for extra toes is present, but is switched off in most modern horses. Sometimes a horse is born today where the genes are switched on, and certainly many fossil horses also had the genes switched on. This would explain why there are no transitional forms showing gradually smaller toe size…. These mechanisms would explain the alleged horse evolutionary series as variation within the equine (horse) kind. The amount of variety within living horses, undoubtedly one kind, supports this.
What Sarfati appears to be saying is that all this variation in the entire horse “series” which includes at least 50 different recognized species are all just variations within a single kind and that this variation was produced by genes being switched on and off to cause “jumpy” changes that would make the transitions to new species appear suddenly. Mostly what he is doing is promoting a form of de-evolution where the horse kind was created with all these regulatory genes and some have been turned off over time resulting in loss of information. As a result Sarfati argues that we find many forms of horses that evolutionists have simply tried to put into some sort of order of progressive evolution. As best as I can tell, he seems to be open then to a four-toed ancestral horse that had genes turned off resulting in the loss of toes so that all the living horses today have one toe but he is not going to call this evolution but rather a loss of information resulting in large morphological changes. Rather than a series of steps from one horse to another I think he rather sees the evolution of horses as bush rather than a tree with one created “kind” of horse in the middle and then all 20+ species being formed directly from that ancestral population. I will critique this in more detail in the future but for now I would say that Sarfati’s de-evolution claims have little to do with the reality of the changes that have occurred between ancestral fossil horses and modern horses as the complexity of making these changes is far greater than he is acknowledging.
A Note on Missing Links in the Horse Series
I can’t help but point on the irony of Sarfati’s use of “jumpy” changes in organisms. He is trying to use quick changes due to regulatory genes being turned on and off to explain how there can be such big differences in the horse kind including fossils of horses that have different numbers of toes and different shaped teeth. As a result of such quick jumpy changes intermediate or so-called “missing links” would not be expected. Here Sarfati is providing a legitimate reason why missing links are not to be expected between all species genera or even families of organisms and yet he is one of the first to make fun of evolutionists for not providing those missing links to show gradual evolution.
In Part IV I will explore the problem that each of these explanations for the origin of horses today have in common.
The Non-evolution of the Horse. by Jonathan Sarfation on the CME website.
Baraminology: Creationists re-examine the horse series. by Tony Breeden on his blog “Defending Genesis”
Cavanaugh, D.P., Wood, T. and Wise, K.P., Fossil equidae: a monobaraminic, stratomorphic series; in: Walsh, R.E. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Creationism, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, PA, p. 143–149, 2003
The Evolution of the Horse by Mats Molen. Journal of Creation 23(2):59–63 August 2009